The combination of Egyptian President Morsi's recent submission of a new draft law on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), combined with yesterday's court verdict convicting 43 NGO employees, including 16 Americans (only one of whom is currently in Egypt and likely to serve a term) for illegal activities with NGOs, has drawn world attention to the increasing pressures being brought against NGOs both foreign and domestic in Egypt.
This is not a new issue, but the proposed NGO draft law suggests that the draconian crackdown that led to the convictions yesterday could in fact become routine. Human rights organizations have weighed in against the decision (Human Rights Watch here; Amnesty International here), as has US Secretary of State John Kerry. Also see, at MEI's Arab Transitions Project, Sarah Carr here, Tamara Coffman Wittes of Brookings at Foreign Policy's Middle East channel here; and Zeinobia's blog here.
Note too, for readers in the DC area, that MEI will be hosting Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch and Nancy Okail of Freedom House for a panel on the Draft NGO Law on Friday at MEI. Registration is via the link.
But the court itself is defending its actions, and the government as a whole is taking a traditional "blame foreign meddling" approach.
Of course both the NGO decision and the proposed draft law are outrageous, given the long history of NGOs that have worked hard in providing Egypt with expertise and aid. Suppressing them merely stifles free expression and strangles civil society.
Under Husni Mubarak, foreign NGOs were usually exempt from pressure for the most part, though not from criticism, but Egyptian NGOs were harassed. (You could ask Saad Eddin Ibrahim.) After the revolution, foreign NGOs continued as usual though technically, in the absence of new laws, they were in violation. They became targets for the xenophobic and anti-Western elements in Egyptian society, and also for those of a conspiratorial bent for whom foreign agents are everywhere, plotting against Egypt. There has always been a xenophobic strain in Egyptian nationalism, sometimes fully justified by the imperious and imperial behavior of foreign powers in Egyptian history. We're only about 10 days away from the anniversary of the 1906 Denshawai Incident, a turning point in crystallizing opposition to the British occupation. (More on that soon.) This ultranationalist strain is easily manipulated and has a long history in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, but has been fed by previous leaders as well, particularly by Nasser in the 1950s and Mubarak in his later decades. The more human rights groups and NGOs criticize the policy, the more at least some Egyptians grow even more defensive. This fact does not, however, justify the Draft NGO Law or the convictions.